Their Last Fight: Filipino Veterans Make A Final Push For Recognition
Maximo Purisima Young was just 19 years old when he heard President Franklin D. Roosevelt call upon Filipinos to join American forces fighting in the Southeast Asian islands during World War II.
In a clandestine radio broadcast which aired throughout the Philippines, Roosevelt asked Filipinos to "stand firm" along with the U.S. and pledged to "keep that promise" of independence for the U.S. Commonwealth.
"When we heard that, all of us shouted," recalled Young, now 97. At the time of broadcast, he was camped alongside American troops — part of a remote force driven back by the well-armed Japanese army.
"All of us, Americans and Filipinos, were happy; we were shouting," Young said.
Young, a Filipino, spent part of the war on a boat, shipping critical supplies and troops through the treacherous waters around Manila. At one point, he was captured by the Japanese and later escaped. He went on to lead guerilla fighters on the island of Negros, working closely with U.S. forces as they planned their return. His service earned him a Silver Star from the Philippine government.
But when he applied to be recognized by the U.S. government after the war, he was denied.
"When you write for compensation, they tell you that our records are closed," said Purisima Young. "Really, it's frustrating. Very, very frustrating."
A Broken Promise
At least 250,000 Filipinos fought with American forces in World War II. After the notorious Bataan Death march in April 1942 and the withdrawal of most U.S. forces, the fight against the Japanese was left mostly to locals. Ordinary Filipinos hidden in the jungles and mountains led the resistance.
The toll was high: more than a million Filipinos died.
Roosevelt signed a presidential order in 1941 bringing all military forces in the Philippines under U.S. control. But after the war, in 1946, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that stripped recognition from Filipino soldiers. It was called the Rescission Act, and it explicitly barred "rights, privileges, or benefits" from most Filipinos who fought. That same year, the Philippines became an independent nation.
U.S. records, declassified in 1988, show that the military's attempt to document the service of Filipino troops was inadequate and incomplete. It became even more difficult after a 1973 fire destroyed millions of military records, including those of many Filipinos. Tens of thousands of Filipino fighters were shut out.
It's a dark legacy that, for many, continues today.
"They are almost at the end of their lives, and yet they are not receiving anything," said Perla Teves, the daughter of a Filipino veteran and an advocate in Manila with the Filipino War Veterans Foundation.
Out of the quarter-million Filipinos who fought in the war, only about 6,000 are still living in the Philippines, according to the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office, which estimates hundreds could be dying every month.
"All of them are sick, they are living in their twilight years," said Teves. "If the U.S. government still plans to give renumeration to these unrecognized World War II veterans, they better make it fast because time is running out."
A Piecemeal Approach To Reform
Over the decades, the U.S. government has made a few efforts to address the issue. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a law offering citizenship to some Filipinos. In 2009, the Obama Administration provided one-time payments to others: $15,000 for U.S. citizens and $9,000 for Filipino citizens. By the end of 2017, $226 million had been awarded to more than 22,000 people. (Purisima Young was one of them.) But Department of Veterans Affairs records also show that more than half of the applicants who tried to qualify were denied.
The VA notes that some Filipinos do qualify for certain benefits, such as pensions and one-time compensation. And last year, Congress awarded Filipino veterans the Congressional Gold Medal, though the award, usually reserved for civilians, was mostly symbolic.
Critics say this reveals a problem in how the U.S. has addressed the issue: by avoiding a comprehensive approach.
"I think the opposition is primarily fiscal," said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. He's sponsoring a bill that would recognize the last remaining Filipino veterans. The measure, co-sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would extend recognition to all Filipinos who fought. It would also make it easier for them to prove their service.
Schatz does not yet have a cost estimate, but a more limited bill introduced in 2015 would have cost $53 million in the first year, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate.
"These soldiers fought under the American flag because they believed in our shared ideals," said Schatz. "They bled for us and for our ideals and they also fought with us with the understanding that they would be treated like American veterans."
Widows, Children Carry On The Fight
Helen Balani, 87, can remember the heavy bombing near her home in Bukidnon, Mindanao, a southern island in the Philippines.
"We were always scared," she said, saying her parents would scramble to find the kids as planes roared overhead. "My mother shouted, 'Run!'"
At the time, her future husband, Ireneo Balani, joined other young Filipinos and fought as a guerilla in the mountains. He was later recognized by the Philippines government as a Scout, a division of local forces that helped guide U.S. troops through the dense mountainsides. He died in 2004.
Today, Helen Balani lives in Los Angeles in a cramped three-bedroom house she shares with five people, including her daughter and two other World War II widows.
"Our husbands fought with the American army side by side, shed blood together with the Americans during that time, and thousands of our people died together with the American people," said Balani.
As a widow, she receives 5,000 pesos a month from the Philippine government, or about $100. But so far, she has been denied benefits from the U.S. Lately, Balani has had trouble making rent and fought an eviction notice.
"We are not trying to steal the money of America," she said. "We just want what is due to us."
Balani is not alone. In her neighborhood, known as historic Filipinotown, about a quarter of the Filipino families have a direct tie to a World War II veteran, according to Art Garcia, a community organizer and the national coordinator for Justice for Filipino American Veterans.
"That's the irony of it," Garcia said. "Imagine you fought for a war side by side with Americans and yet you're denied being an American veteran."
Garcia has been working to expand recognition for Filipinos for more than two decades. He said he sees the current legislation in the Senate as the final piece.
"If it is completed, America has paid its dues to the Filipinos," he said.
But he's worked long enough to know that passage is far from certain. The bill currently awaits action in the Senate's Veterans Affairs committee, and though it has garnered bipartisan support, the upcoming election season may make it tough for advocates to keep lawmakers' attention on the issue.
"We will continue fighting for benefits and for recognition," Garcia said. "We will not let up."
How much longer will they fight?
"As long as it takes," he said.
During World War II the Philippines was a U.S. commonwealth and more than a quarter million Filipinos fought alongside American soldiers. Yet after the war many were denied the veterans benefits promised to them. Now a bill in Congress aims to address the issue but will it come in time for the last remaining veterans Dorian Merina reports from Manila in the summer of 1942 things looked grim for American forces in the Philippines the notorious bhatta and death march took place in April and most U.S. troops had left focusing instead on the battles in Europe. The fight was left mostly to locals ordinary Filipinos hidden in the jungles and mountains led the resistance to a well armed Japanese military. At least 1 million Filipinos would die. As the months dragged on President Roosevelt tried to rally Filipinos to the American Cause. I call upon you all the heroic people to stand firm in your faith in this radio broadcast from August 1942 Roosevelt asked Filipinos to join American forces. He also pledged independence for the U.S. commonwealth. After the war we will keep that promise we kept every promise America made to the Filipino people. One of those listening was a 19 year old Filipino named Maksym by his moxie ball. Patricia Majaw. Today he's 97 years old. He says radio broadcasts like this were a boost to morale in those dark days as he camped alongside U.S. soldiers. We'd be here all of us shouted. When you heard it you are happy. When all of us. Americans and Filipinos will not be shouting when the war broke out he was working on a shipping boat and joined US forces transporting food and troops through treacherous waters. We have here that I meet Purisima young at a busy donut shop in Manila. At one point he flips over a copy of his military papers and sketches maps showing how his boat traveled at night to avoid Japanese fire Shibu. After the war he applied for U.S. recognition. But like tens of thousands of others was denied the right for compensation. Do you recall how close did you feel like it's a broken promise. Religion is frustrating. Very very frustrating. The problem was that the U.S. Congress passed a law in 1946 that stripped of veterans benefits from most Filipinos. That year the Philippines became an independent nation. To this day many Filipinos have been shut out. They are. Almost at the end of their lives and yet they are not receiving anything. Burleigh TV is the daughter of a Filipino veteran and an advocate in Manila. She says out of the more than 250000 Filipinos who fought in World War II fewer than 7000 are still living in the Philippines. All of them are sick. They are living in their twilight years. If the US government still plans to give remuneration to these and recognize the more work to veterans they'd better make it fast. The U.S. response so far has been piecemeal and immigration law in 1990 offered citizenship to some a fund set up in 2009 gave a one time payment to others. Still thousands continue to be left out. I don't have a good reason for why it's taken this long. Brian shots is a Democratic senator from Hawaii. He's introduced a bill that recognizes everybody who fought in the Philippines and makes it easier for them to document their service. These soldiers fought under the American flag because they believed in our shared ideals. They bled for us and for our ideals with the understanding that they would be treated like American veterans. The bill has bipartisan support but it awaits action in the Senate. Meanwhile the last of the Filipino Veterans continue to wait more than seven decades after President Roosevelt called on them to join the fight for freedom. I'm Doreen marina. This story was produced by the American Homefront Project a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.
During World War II more than a quarter million Filipinos fought alongside U.S. troops at the time the Philippines was still a U.S. commonwealth. Now more than 70 years later family members are still fighting for the veterans benefits that those Filipino troops were promised in the second of two reports. Dorian Merina has the story. I'm standing at the Manila American Cemetery this 152 acre site is home to the largest number of World War II veteran graves outside the U.S. more than 17000 veterans are marked here. It's also home to a memorial for those lost or missing in action in the war. One of those here I'm stretching to look up and must be about 25 feet up and just below the ceiling there is Esteban Domingo. His country the Philippines from the north I reached Domingo's nephew Roy Domingo Pasos via cell phone from a remote part of the Philippines known as Ilocos Norte. He describes how his uncle and other young men fled the Japanese invasion in 1941 and joined U.S. forces fighting in the hills nearby. They left behind their homes they've left behind their younger brothers to go to the mountains because here in a low cost north there were a lot of guerrilla fighters back then and the Japanese they killed many of those who are suspected of joining the fight. Suspect that his uncle was captured by the Japanese and died in a POW camp. Today his family is seeking full recognition. They're hoping his remains receive a proper burial and his dependents get veterans benefits. Advocates say there are about 40000 family members of Filipino fighters who deserve to be recognized and the opposition is primarily fiscal. That's Democratic Senator Brian shots of Hawaii. He has a bill in the Senate that would recognize the last remaining Filipino veterans shots does not yet have a cost estimate. But a more limited bill introduced in 2015 would have cost 53 million dollars. Everybody's sympathetic to the cause. But the hesitancy has been in terms of the price tag. Of. Those. 87 year old Helen Bollani ducks inside her cramped apartment in Los Angeles. She moved here from the Philippines in 2001 to take care of her ailing husband. A nail Bollani a veteran of World War II Bollani whose husband died in 2004. Now she shares the three bedroom apartment with five people including her daughter and two other World War II widows cots and mattresses are set up in the living room and boxes lined the floor. Lately they've had trouble making rent and had to fight an eviction. Our houses. Are side by side. And thousands of good and Bologna's husband helped guide us soldiers in the dense mountainsides during the war. Bollani as his widow gets about 100 dollars a month from the Philippine government. But she still does not receive any benefits from the US are not trying to stay we just learned. The VA notes that the government has put in place several programs for Filipino veterans over the years including a one time payment for some and pensions for others. But there are still thousands more who have been left out. Art Garcia is with a group called Justice for Filipino American veterans and has been working on the issue for more than 20 years. He calls the Senate bill the final piece in the decades long fight. It completed AmeriGas the youth the Filipinos. So how long will you continue to fight for this base. Back at the American cemetery in Manila the names of both Filipino and U.S. soldiers continue to be a reminder of the close ties and the sacrifice that both nations once shared. I'm Doreen Marina in Manila. This story was produced by the American Homefront Project a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.